Last night I had the pleasure of catering for an exclusive Angel’s Envy tasting event with Master Distiller Wes Henderson (I’ll have a post about that and recipes to match coming up later in the week). It just so happened that my friend Vincent Errichetti was also there. Vincent is the person behind Taste of Massachusetts and a social media guru. After the event was over we got to talking, discussing the industry, food blogging, influencers, celebrity chefs etc… Vincent pointed out that I don’t really promote all of my Food Network competition appearances. Meanwhile, there are people that have been on one show building whole brands off of it and calling themselves celebrity chefs. He’s right and this has always been a dilemma for me.
Like many people, growing up I was taught not to brag, that it was crass and unbecoming. For some reason this became so ingrained in me that it has always been hard for me to talk about my accomplishments without feeling like I’m bragging or trying to be better than. This creates a dilemma when my brand and my business depends on promoting my accomplishments. Time to rip the band-aid off and deal with it! However, I don’t think I’ll feel deserving of the title celebrity chef until I have considerably more of a following and notoriety.
Imagine my surprise when this picture from Sweet Genius – Food Network popped up on my Facebook memories this morning. It got me thinking about all of the fun I’ve had competing on Food Network and about Vincent’s comments last night. This must be a sign (yup I’m one of those people) that I should write about my Food Network experiences.
I put together this fun little list of the show’s I’ve been on ranked from my favorite/ most fun experience to my least favorite/ least fun experience. I hope you enjoy these tidbits as much as I am enjoying the memories.
- Sweet Genius – Season 1 Episode 1 – Filmed in New York
Sweet Genius was the third show that I taped for Food Network and my favorite for a few reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I won. The host, Ron Ben-Isreal, is someone who I have I have looked up to for years for his skill and artistry as a pastry chef. This was one of the longest days filming of any show I’ve done but time flew by and I had so much fun! Chef Ron is actually quite funny and down to earth. He made us feel comfortable but at the same time respect the competition and our craft. The production crew, many of whom also worked on Chopped, were amazing and made the day so much easier.
I was the first competitor to get there and then I see Chef Biagio Settepani pull up and get out of his car with his son Salvatore. Chef Biagio is a legend in our industry, known especially for his Gelato and Pannetone. I was a little relieved when I realized that it was Sal, and not Biagio, competing but not much. Sal is a great pastry chef in his own right and a seasoned competitor from a family of seasoned competitors. The next competitor to arrive was Michael Mignano, former executive pastry chef of The Four Seasons. Yes, I was nervous and wondering if I was out of my league. Last but certainly not least was Michael Bowen, better known as Bertha Mason, the world’s foremost drag queen pie making expert and all around awesome person.
The other chefs and I were allowed to hang out and talk to each other between rounds. We commiserated on the daily grind of running restaurants & bakeries and realized that, despite our very different backgrounds, our daily life was pretty similar.
Once the competition started all of my nerves went away, I was in my element. I knew I was up against really tough competition so all I could do was cook from my heart and hope it was good enough. Of all of the shows I’ve done Sweet genius was the most in my wheelhouse, not because it was pastry but because of the format with the inspirations and themes. I’ve always had a hard time self editing…I want to do it all. When it comes to food if you just give me ingredients the possibilities are endless and I have a hard time making a decision but when you give me a theme and narrow it down, watch out!
- Rewrapped – Season 2 Episode 6 – Filmed in New Jersey at the same location as The Kitchen
Rewrapped was a totally different experience from any of the other shows. The premise is to recreate an iconic pre-packaged snack food (we got Hostess Snowballs) and be judged on how close you came to the original. The two best recreations move on to the final round where they have to use the packaged snack to create something creative and delicious without totally losing the original item. This is a bit of a dilemma for pastry chefs who bake from scratch striving to create delicious all natural works of art. I made it through the first round, beating out, formidable competition, pastry chef and author Stella Parks. In the final round I narrowly lost to a sweet, up and coming pastry chef, Michael Werrell, from New York and I was genuinely happy for him.
I honestly don’t even remember much about the cooking portions and how I was feeling because every minute of the day was so much fun. The host was Joey Fatone of NSYNC fame and the head judge was Marc Summers of Double Dare and Unwrapped fame. These two guys are hilarious! There was so much joking around and singing on set it’s hard to remember much else. In the final judging Marc Summers asked me why he had no raspberries on his plate and everyone else did, I do remember joking with him that it was just because I didn’t like him as much. Almost anything anyone said was turned into a joke or was cause for Joey to break out into song lyrics that were relevant.They could make a whole show just from the out takes and it would probably be more popular than the actual show was.
- Chopped – Season 1 Episode 11 – Filmed in Long Island City, NY
Chopped is the show that started it all. Food Network’s first, and longest running, competition show. I was cast on the first season and filmed the second day that they ever filmed the show. We had no idea what was ahead of us, we had never seen an episode of Chopped and were not told in advance much about how the day would go. We didn’t know the layout of the kitchen, the pantry etc… and were only given five minutes to look around before we started.
I was definitely the most nervous on this show because it was the first show I had ever filmed and I had no idea what to expect. The entire crew, the producers, judges and especially Ted Allen were awesome and made the day as fun as it was challenging. There was a fair amount of waiting between rounds because, not only were we new to this, the entire crew was only on their second time doing it. During the down time I was able to hang out and get to know my competitors and we made friendships that lasted well beyond the show. The first time I was invited to Cook at The James Beard Foundation was a collaboration with Michael Gilletto who I met on the show.
Fun Fact: We were not supposed to keep our Chopped chef coats but I totally forgot that I had it on. I didn’t realize that I left wearing it until I got out of my cab back at the hotel. Apparently no one else noticed either since it is still hanging in my closet 9 years later.
- Beat Bobby Flay – Season 3 Episode 12 – Filmed in New York
I have huge respect for Bobby flay. My son and I filmed a commercial for Hellman’s mayo with him about three years before being invited to compete on Beat Bobby Flay. After spending two full days filming with him on two different sets, years apart, I think that I have a pretty real idea of who he is as a person. He is very down to earth, funny and one of the hardest working people in the business.
When we were filming Beat Bobby Flay he had just opened Gato and was literally filming the show each day (usually a 10-12 hour day), prepping to film a new season of Next Food Network Star and then going to Gato and working in the Kitchen every night. I asked him how he did it and he joked “I’m running on fumes”. Bobby Flay doesn’t just put his name on restaurants, he is involved.
The hardest part of this show for me was Alton Brown, who was one of the judges. Of all of the famous people I have met Alton Brown is the most intimidating. I don’t think this is necessarily due to who he is, it is more about my own perception. I mean, the man is a freakin’ walking encyclopedia of culinary knowledge and has a very dry sense of humor. If there is anyone in the world who could make a chef doubt their skills or culinary knowledge it would be Alton Brown. I definitely second guessed myself on more than one occasion due to his comments and and one point I think I asked him if he was trying to psyche me out.
My favorite part of the whole day was while standing on set with Bobby Flay and my competitor Joe Dobias waiting for judging. Alex Guarnaschelli was sitting at the judging table and Alton was walking around somewhere. After waiting for a while Bobby finally says to Alex “what are we waiting for?” to which she responds “Alton wants red wine to go with his steak”. Bobby flay kind of laughed and half joking said something to the effect of “Is he serious, does he thinks this is dinner?”. We all laughed and as soon as they found Alton some wine, he was serious, they got on with the judging.
- Cupcake Wars – Season 2 Episode 13- filmed in Manhattan Beach, CA
Cupcake Wars was my least favorite show to film mostly for reasons I’m not allowed to disclose as they would reveal show secrets. Suffice it to say that, of all the shows I’ve done, Cupcake Wars is the most over produced and not really “reality”. The fact that it filmed in LA and started the moment we landed didn’t help – can you say jet lag?!
On the flip side, filming Cupcake Wars gave me some of the best memories and stories, a few of which I can share.
Cupcake Wars is the only show that allows you to bring an assistant, I brought my right hand Shayla (VanderVliet) Ferris. When we landed in LA we were met at the airport by our Production Assistant (PA) otherwise known as a babysitter. They had pretty strict rules about what we were and were not allowed to do. All of the contestants were staying in the same hotel but we were not supposed to fraternize, I guess they thought that if we became friends we wouldn’t be fierce competitors. We would pass each other in the halls and joke about being mortal enemies and not being allowed to talk.
We were also instructed not to go off on our own beyond the strip mall across the street. Shayla and I are both beach people so naturally we asked our PA where the beach was…if it was walking distance. Being the awesome human that she was she said “well…I’m not supposed to let you go that far but if you were able to go it would be about a 15min walk that way” as she pointed down the street and gave us a wink.
There was no way that we were going to be in California in the summer and not go to the beach or have a great fish taco. The next evening, after we returned from the first day of filming, we headed off in the direction of the beach. We had the best fish tacos and craft bear that $10 could buy, walked down to the beach where the national beach volleyball championships were being held that weekend, and watched the sunset. We checked out the shops in “downtown” and then headed back to the hotel before anyone noticed we were gone. This was the highlight of the whole trip and to this day the best fish taco I have ever had.
The funniest moment on set came from Florian Bolangier the French pastry chef, macaron master and last person you might expect to be a wise ass. Judging had just begun, Florian poked at a cupcake on one contestants plate. He then picked up the plate with the cupcake on it and turned it upside down. Everyone gasped but the cupcake didn’t move. Florian tried to keep a straight face but it was obvious he had glued the cupcake to the plate somehow and we all started laughing.
There were some other funny mishaps and incidents along the way, unfortunately I can’t talk about most of them. Check out this post from a previous judge who eludes to some of the things that I can’t discuss.
The bottom line is that I would do it all again, maybe not cupcake wars. I had so much fun, it had a huge positive impact on my business and I made so many great friends.One of the best things about the chefs that compete on these shows is that we all bond over our love of food, what we do and our competition experiences. We have a mutual respect for each other. There is an ever growing network of chefs who have been on these shows that are now friends. I have so many chef friends on social media who I have met through this network, many of whom I didn’t compete against. We have met at conferences, visited each others restaurants, collaborated on projects and shared insights & knowledge. We support each other through the highs and lows of this crazy business and we are all better for it!
Last but not least, if anyone from Food Network is reading this, I think with all of my varied experience as a contestant that I would make a great guest judge and I would love the opportunity!